The Education column with Dennis Richards

Harrogate welcomed the World during the cycling championships.
Harrogate welcomed the World during the cycling championships.

There are certain scenes in some past British comedy programmes which have passed into our folklore. Several moments from the epic Fawlty Towers series come to mind.

In one famous scene a severely concussed Basil Fawlty is welcoming a party of Germans to his hotel and warns his staff, “Don’t mention the war”.

From then on in, it becomes a master class in getting it wholly wrong.

“Don’t mention the cycling”, I hear you say. But, hang on, signs on the boundaries of the town have been proudly saying “Harrogate Welcomes the World” for weeks. And Harrogate International Partnerships did precisely that. Representatives from our twin towns, Montecatini Terme in Italy, and Barrie in Canada came to join us and reminded us of the joy of “twinning”.

They enjoyed Yorkshire hospitality with the participants from a staggering 49 different nations. Nobody knows how twinning first started, but it may well have been a way of pursuing reconciliation between the nations after the war.

Montecatini is a beautiful spa town (like Harrogate). Admiral Sir Robert Barrie, the founder of modern Canada (Barrie is named after him) married into the Ingilby family and is buried in Ripley Church. Apparently other “twinnings” come about for more arcane reasons. Dull in Perthshire is twinned with Boring in Oregon.

A Dull-Boring twinning event must be quite something. In the end I mentioned the cycling, but I think I got away with it.

On the schools scene, more polarisation.

Primary schools in the Midlands again found themselves targeted by angry parents. Parents who believe that lessons about same sex relationships should not be on the curriculum for very young children. In the same week the Labour Party announces that it will put the abolition of private schools into its next election manifesto. Yikes, since I am a governor in both a state school and a private school, I suspect I won’t be allowed to sit on that particular fence for long.

Furthermore controversy will soon rage about children without medically recommended vaccinations not being allowed to attend school.

If it becomes “Don’t mention schools”, I really am sunk.

And then we come to the use of language. As a linguist, I try to use it properly.

If the grammar expressing an idea is faulty, it can easily change the meaning of a phrase or sentence entirely. We all learned that from a seminal book title some years ago. Lynne Truss wrote “Eats, shoots and leaves” to demonstrate how a badly placed comma could change a harmless panda into a murderous beast.

Language can also be used in a way which is powerful and dangerous. Referring to the letters of the alphabet, Benjamin Franklin said, “Give me 26 lead soldiers and I will conquer the world”. Schools are in the vanguard of teaching proper discourse, along with values of courtesy, honesty, respect for others and tolerance.

Our Parliamentary discourse is falling well short of the standards it requires of our schools. In fact if OFSTED had been called into Westminster last week, the place would immediately have been placed “in special measures”. Even the stuff they send us is sometimes gibberish. “We expect children getting top GCSE grades to be cut in half under the new GCSE reforms”. Sounds extreme to me. Finally, there’s Brexit. Don’t mention it. Well, I just did…but I think I got away with it.